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Eagle defense steps up in WCU rout
Stops the run, sets season highs in sacks, turnovers
Larry Beard 3 col BW
Georgia Southern defensive end Larry Beard, 55, recovers a Western Carolina fumble in the 2nd quarter Saturday at Paulson Stadium. The Eagles recovered four fumbles in the 50-21 conference win. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Heading into the Western Carolina game, Georgia Southern’s defense had heard plenty of flak about their performance so far this year.

    Quite frankly, they were sick of it.

    “That got on our nerves a lot because we knew we were a better defense than that,” junior end Larry Beard said. “We really had to show it this game.”

    They did, turning in their best performance yet in a 50-21 rout of the Catamounts Saturday at Paulson Stadium. The Eagles stacked the box to suffocate Western’s running game, which churned out just 27 rushing yards – 19 on the final play.

    “We had a simple game plan,” defensive coordinator Ashley Anders said. “Last week during practice we challenged the guys to play to our level. We don’t feel like we did that last week. The guys were really focused, and I think the overall effort was great. Execution is what made the difference.”

    The defense forced three fumbles and recovered four — both season highs — while GSU held a 4-1 advantage in the turnover department. That gave the Eagle offense a short field, which quarterback Jayson Foster said he was grateful for.

    “We just fed off that on offense,” he said.

    Beard recovered two fumbles during a crucial second-quarter stretch in which three consecutive Western turnovers led to a field goal and two touchdowns for Georgia Southern.

    “Fumbles are what we’ve been preaching this whole week — getting turnovers and creating turnovers,” Beard said. “It was a great feeling to have those three turnovers back-to-back like that. I think we did a decent job the last game, we just didn’t create any turnovers, which is one of the keys in defense.”

    The unit’s shinning moment was a goal-line stand two seconds before halftime with Western threatening to score on first-and-one from the GSU 1. Junior safety Chris Covington halted Willie Harper on the final play, sending the defense into the locker room with its first first-half shutout of the year.

    “That was huge,” Anders said. “It’s a great confidence builder, not letting an opposing offense in the end zone. We really needed that. We’ve been harping all week that we needed to get a different mentality in the red zone and on the goal line, and I think the guys bought into that. We are finding ourselves a little bit of an identity.”

    Beard agreed and felt the group finally played to its potential, regardless of the fact they were facing one of the Southern Conference’s weakest teams.

    “We’ve preached from the beginning about letting no one in your backyard, and that end zone is the defense’s backyard,” he said. “We just showed what we could do.”

    The season’s best outing came in the wake of the permanent loss of two key reserves, sophomore safety Brandon Echols (disciplinary reasons) and junior cornerback Henry Chubb (concussions).

    Only seven of Western’s 21 points came against the first-team GSU defense, an encouraging sign for a team that entered the game allowing more than 33 points a contest. Aside from blitzing more, the Eagles said they haven’t made changes to their defensive approach.

    “The scheme’s been there, and the effort’s been there,” said Covington, who tied linebacker David Lewis with a team-high four tackles. “That’s what was killing me is guys were playing hard, we were just not focused and doing our assignments correctly. It felt great to come out and, minus one or two plays, have a flawless game.”

    The Eagles also had better success with pressuring quarterbacks, thanks in part to converted linebacker Dakota Walker, who moved to defensive end. GSU hadn’t had a sack since its season opener and finished with a season-high five Saturday. E.J. Webb, Damon Suggs, Matt Wise, Austin Watts and Brandon Lee Williams recorded one each.

    “I think we are starting to come together as a unit and starting to bond a little bit more,” Webb said. “As the season goes on, we look to progress and get better.”

    Lopsided SoCon wins

    Along with Georgia Southern’s dismantling of Western, three other SoCon schools picked up lopsided league wins as No. 8 Wofford earned a 45-20 victory at No. 20 Furman, No. 5 Appalachian State got a 49-32 road win over No. 24 Elon and The Citadel handed Chattanooga a 41-16 home loss.

    The Terriers sit atop the league standing with a 2-0 record in league play, while The Bulldogs (1-0) are the only other undefeated team. Appalachian State, Chattanooga and Georgia Southern are tied with a 1-1 mark, and Elon, Furman and Western are all 0-1.

    Up Next

    Georgia Southern concludes a three-game homestand with a 2 p.m. game Saturday against South Dakota State of the Great West Football Conference.

    The Jackrabbits improved to 2-3 on the year with a 45-0 home win over Stephen F. Austin last week, marking the second straight game the SDSU defense didn’t surrender a touchdown.

    South Dakota State started the season 0-3 with losses to Western Illinois, Youngstown State and Northern Iowa before downing Texas State 38-3 two weeks ago. SDSU comes to Statesboro scoring 24.5 points a game behind a balanced attack averaging nearly 196 passing and 113 rushing yards a week.

    The Jackrabbits have thrown for six TDs and rushed for five, while their defense is allowing a conference-best 21.5 points a contest. The Eagles haven’t played South Dakota State since GSU picked up a 55-42 victory in Brookings, S.D., in Oct. 2005.

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.